Man detained in terrorist assault

STATELINE -- It had been a good day for Ghassan Zebdaoui.

He'd finished up another day at his new job as principal civil engineer for the city of South Lake Tahoe. After a good sushi dinner, he decided to try his luck at Harrah's. Lady luck smiled on him, and within 90 minutes Zebdaoui had won $1,600.

Zebdaoui was just thinking of calling it a day when he felt a heavy hand on his shoulder.

"Would you please step aside, sir,'' an armed hotel security officer told him.

The next six hours would be a defining moment in the life of Zebdaoui, a time when his American citizenship, his service in the U.S. Army, and his years of public service ceased to matter. His face reflected his Middle Eastern ancestry, a region that now spells ''terrorist" in America, and a striking resemblance to a man on the FBI's "Most Wanted'' list.

War affects everyone. Thursday night, it touched Zebdaoui's life in a way he will never forget.

Nearly 10 uniformed security officers surrounded Zebdaoui and moved him away from the blackjack table. As hundreds of people walking in and out of Harrah's watched, an officer grabbed Zebdaoui's neck while another frisked him, "touching even my private parts," he said.

"I wanted the ground to open up and swallow me. It was so humiliating,'' Zebdaoui said. "I kept thinking that someone I knew would walk by and think, 'Aha! Ghassan has broken the law. Wait till I tell my friends!'''

Initially, Zebdaoui had no idea why he had been detained. His repeated questions were not answered, with officers telling him that he would soon find out.

Minutes later, he was told that he had an "uncanny" resemblance to Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, a Kuwaiti national, wanted for involvement in a 1995 conspiracy to bomb U.S. airliners flying from Southeast Asia to the United States. There is a $5 million reward for information leading to Mohammad's capture.

Zebdaoui pulled out his driver's license and his Social Security card but seemed unable to convince the security officers, who were comparing his likeness with photos of suspected terrorists contained in a copy of Time magazine.

"I kept saying 'Hey, I'm American, I'm a veteran of the U.S. Army,' but I could see that it wasn't registering. All they could see was that I was Middle Eastern," said Zebdaoui, a native of Beirut, Lebanon, who has been a U.S. citizen for 10 years.

"Initially, there was great rage: How dare they compare me to a terrorist?" he said, although he believed authorities acted professionally. "The country is on the edge. It makes everyone jumpy."

A Douglas County sheriff's deputy arrived to examine Zebdaoui's IDs and returned a few minutes later to confirm he was not Mohammad.

However, Zebdaoui was arrested after a records check turned up a warrant against him for passing bad checks.

"I couldn't believe this was happening to me,'' said Zebdaoui, who believes someone used his identity to write the checks after he lost his driver's license in 1996. He hadn't heard of the warrant before Thursday, he said, and has hired an attorney to clear things up.

Zebdaoui was handcuffed and taken to the sheriff's substation where he was put in a cell and questioned briefly. He was released after posting $1,500 bail, and went back to cash in his chips. This time, the cashier paid out.

However, Zebdaoui believes his nightmare hasn't ended. He fears he could be mistaken for Mohammad again and turned in by someone wanting to claim the $5 million reward.

"It's devastating," he said. "I don't feel I deserve this. I've been a good citizen and I've paid my dues."


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